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Sexuality, Intimacy and Aging: It’s Time to Talk!
posted 04.14.2015

By Peggy Brick

What is sexuality education and who needs it? Adults, of course! Questions from hundreds of my students, aged 50 to 90, are powerful evidence of the poignant concerns people have about sex and intimacy in mid and later life:

  • “How do you overcome the strict religious ‘do’s and don’t’s in sexual relationships?”
  • “How do you handle sex and disabilities such as heart disease?”
  • “What are the contributing factors & willingness of women to acknowledge their true sexual identity as lesbians, or men as gay?”
  • “What changes in sexual desire should we expect as we age?”
  • “How can we continue to find beauty in our aging bodies?”
  • “Please focus on widowers/widows who are not interested in sexual relationships, but find the loss of an intimate very lonely.”
  • “Is it normal for women to masturbate? Or rare?” “Is too much masturbation not good for you?”
  • “Discuss extramarital sex, particularly: if your partner emphatically does not want sex. If 50% of women do not have partners after a certain age, why does half the population have to be celibate?”
  • “How can women have better orgasms?”
  • “How to find the G-Spot?”
  • “How do you deal with a spouse who is not longer interested in sex but wants to watch and read porn?”
  • “What about marriages that are sexless/monastic for 30 years? Is there hope?”
  • "Why do men want to just climax and turn over, fall sleep & forget their partner?”
  • “How can a woman feel love if her husband/partner is impotent?”
  • “Can you speak to the difficulty of getting used to a new partner when you come from a very conservative sexual script and been widowed in mid 50’s?”
  • “What is the average age that men begin to loose erections? And how do they enjoy sex without ejaculation?”
  • “What about the men in this class whose wives don’t know they’re taking it?”
Principles about Sexuality in Mid and Later Life:
  1. Sexuality is a positive, life-affirming force. A positive approach to sexuality means acknowledging the pleasures, not just the dangers of sex.
     
  2. Older adults deserve respect. This respect includes an appreciation for individual sexual histories and the current stage of a person’s sexual journey.
     
  3. Older adults are not all alike. Older adults vary in their comfort with sexual language, in the discussion of sexual topics, and in participating in learning activities related to sexuality.
     
  4. Forget the cliché about “old dogs” and “new tricks”. Older adults are capable of writing new sexual scripts that can invigorate their sexual journeys. Sex is more than intercourse , and there are many ways to be sexual without penetrative sex. Avoid the word “sex” whenever possible because of its vague meaning—when talking about intercourse, use the word, “intercourse.”
     
  5. Older adults learn from each other. Older adults have many “lessons” to learn from each other. Discussing ideas with peers help people take responsibility for their own learning.
     
  6. Older adults deserve accurate & explicit information, as well as resources for discovery. Most people in this culture have lived with the message that sexuality is mysterious, secret, and shameful. Having access to the facts and a chance to talk openly helps people overcome those negative messages.
     
  7. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals must be acknowledged respected and included in discussions. Participants in your groups will likely mirror society, and, therefore, have a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities. Acknowledging all sexual orientations and identities can help all participants feel included.
     
  8. Flexible gender roles behavior is fundamental to personal & sexual health. Strict adherence to traditional gender roles and stereotypes limits individuals’ potential as human beings.
     
  9. Make no assumptions! Avoid making assumptions about the sexual behaviors or orientations of participants. Some may be currently involved in sexual relationships, others may not.

—from Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter, xiii

More articles in this series...

The Circles of Sexuality and Aging
By Terri Clark

Satisfying Mature Gay Sexuality
By Brian B. Doyle

You and Your Doctor
By Joan Price

To Survive on This Shore
By Vanessa Fabbre

Sexual Health in Older Adulthood: Defining the Goals
By Maggie L. Syme

How different these questions are than those I received from the “SEX QUESTIONS” box displayed prominently on my desk when I taught adolescents in high school. Sex education for adults responds to the profound changes to our relationships, our bodies, our entire lives as we age. Many of the old scripts get in the way; sex education encourages us rethink all those old expectations.

My commitment to adults began in the late 1980s when my visionary Planned Parenthood Board enabled me to develop a sex and aging initiative by hiring an educator to develop curricula, facilitate workshops and hold a conference featuring popular leaders in the sexuality field. We started people thinking and talking about the needs and the possibilities. At the same time, I was preparing teachers for their expanding roles in educating children and adolescents about sex. The questions that these teachers raised during class revealed their own struggles and concerns with the topic. Their class journals showed how difficult it was to teach about sex when they were uncomfortable with their own sex lives.

So, when I retired at 70, I became a full-time advocate, giving workshops and speeches and co-editing a book, New Expectations: Sexuality Education for Mid and Later Life (Siecus, 2003), that developed a theory and practice for teaching about sexuality and aging. Updated six years later in Older, Wiser, Sexuality Smarter: 30 Sex Ed Lessons for Adults Only (Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey, 2009), the lessons address the fact that “the sexual scripts most of us learned as children are painfully inadequate for our lives as older adults. These scripts, instructing each of us how to think, feel and act as male or female persons, commonly focus on the reproductive function of sex, define sex as penetrative intercourse only, stereotype gender roles, portray sex as for the young, discount gay, lesbian and bisexual persons, and generally discourage positive sexual attitudes.”

What do we teach? Mostly that it’s time to talk. Of course, lessons include key facts that everyone needs to know, but also encourage discussion of the attitudes, values, feelings and beliefs that are so central to our experience of sexuality. For example, a history lesson examines the amazing changes in attitudes about sex we’ve faced in our lifetime while others focus on the key issue of communication with partners, adult children and physicians. Another lesson addresses the special concerns of people with disabilities and chronic illness and yet another provides for training staff and developing sexuality policies in long-term-care facilities. But no one needs to buy the book! Anyone can begin the conversation in their agency, senior citizens center, religious group, men’s and women’s clubs, university or anywhere people over 50 gather by using “Principles about Sexuality in Mid & Later Life” (see sidebar).

For me, evidence of the vital importance of talking with adults about sex and intimacy comes not only from student questions such as those identified earlier, but from student responses to the 12 session courses I’ve taught at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Delaware, during the past ten years. The thanks and appreciation I have received from students have been almost embarrassing.

Additionally encouraging is a qualitative research study examining the impact of the course by Dr. Patricia Barthalow Koch of Penn State University (presented with Helen Eastman-McArthur at a 2011 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (PDF)). Koch identified the core theme as “still sexual after all these years” with eight other themes expressed by the students: 1) gaining knowledge empowered them about their sexuality, 2) validating their experiences about sexuality and aging so that they didn’t feel alone, 3) decreasing their inhibitions, 4) helping them accept the changes in their bodies and the sexual responding that they experience with aging, 5) increasing their comfort about sexuality, 6) communicating more openly, 7) nurturing their relationships, and 8) enhancing sexual responding. She concluded that “the qualitative evaluation supports the need for the availability of sexuality education for older adults.”

But there’s an elephant in the room. In his 2008 book The Longevity Revolution, Robert Butler, a pioneering gerontologist, defined ageism as the negative stereotyping of older adults as “another form of bigotry,” that includes perceiving them as “sexless.” Butler had already lead the growing movement supporting the needs and rights of older adults when in 1976 he and his wife, Myrna Lewis, wrote Love & Sex After 60. Revised and published in 2002 as The NEW Love and Sex after 60, the book provides guides on the many medical problems that affect sex, suggests how people can learn new patterns of lovemaking and how people who are widowed, separated, divorced or single can find new relationships. I treasure their final chapter, “Love and Life as a Work of Art,” where they describe how “sex in later life is sex for its own sake: pleasure, release, communication and shared intimacy.”

The need for sexuality education for adults has been identified, the resources are now available, the key question remains: how will the growing cadre of professionals serving older adults respond?


A sexuality educator for fifty years, Peggy Brick has taught courses “Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter” and “Understanding Alzheimer’s” at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She provides workshops on “CHOICES at the End-of-Life” at Kendal Continuing Care Community where she lives and, summer, 2015, will publish a book of fifty resident stories titled, “Experiences.”

This article was brought to you by ASA’s LGBT Aging Issues Network

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